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Poe-Me Monday: The Imp of the Perverse

 The Poe house on North Seventh Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“That single thought is enough. The impulse increases to a wish, the wish to a desire, the desire to an uncontrollable longing, and the longing (to the deep regret and mortification of the speaker, and in defiance of all consequences) is indulged."

“The Imp Of The Perverse” - Edgar A. Poe

Perhaps the quintessential “Poesque” short story that Poe ever wrote must be “The Imp Of The Perverse. The writer was unquestionably a victim of the very mental demon he wrote about. No one sabotaged Poe’s career and life more than Poe himself, making it appear as if he were bent on crushing his own hopes and dreams. 

The short story “The Imp Of The Perverse” begins with an analysis of the all-too-human behavior of doing things that are contrary to self interest. Procrastination is a fine example: we know that we have deadlines, but we often put things off even when we know that a task must be completed. We leave things until the last moment even when we know that it affects others and our own lives. We give in to that little voice that tells us to do things “later.” The narrator has committed the highest crime possible–murder–but cannot resist giving hints, and eventually confessing to his crime. The titular “imp” compels him to do things that lead to his doom. 

Edgar Allen Poe knew the effects of this most human foible of the perverse all too well. Often making bitter enemies of the very people who were in a position to help him, Poe continued to say and do things against his own self-interest his entire life. He hurled insults at friends and family, only to ask for money later in his correspondence. In researching Poe, I have often wanted to reach through history and shake some sense into him. Nothing has been more frustrating than reading about the petty quarrels he engaged in when it would have been wiser for him to shut his mouth–or, rather, put down his pen and cork his inkwell. 

As a literary critic for The Southern Literary Messenger, Poe was unwisely brutally honest in his criticism of other writers. These writers were the opposite of Edgar in every way. They had education, wealth, and power, and they would eventually use their standing to keep him from advancement in his career. There were exceptions, of course, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow with whom Poe had a long-running, one-sided, literary feud. Longfellow, the poet who wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride, “The Song of Hiawatha,” and “Evangeline,” was accused by Poe of plagiarism in a continuous printed diatribe. Called the “Longfellow War,” the Massachusetts poet never replied to the charge, choosing instead to remain silent. After Poe’s death, he would visit Maria Clemm, Poe’s beloved mother-in-law, giving her money to live on. But Longfellow was clearly the exception to the rule. 

When Rufus W. Griswold published his anthology The Poets and Poetry of America in 1842, he only included three of Poe’s poems,  then soliciting a review from Poe for a $10 bribe. While Edgar wrote a favorable review, it was less glowing than Rufus expected. Considering that the volume featured mostly poets whom Poe considered inferior, one could say that as a reviewer, he was being kind. Griswold, however,  would ultimately hold a grudge against Poe for the remainder of his life. He would take revenge on the poet’s character after his death. Griswold, wrote a notoriously vicious obituary for the poet, the source of many of the unflattering character traits still associated with Poe to this day. “This announcement will startle many, but few will be grieved by it,” he wrote in the New York Tribune. In the end, though, it would be Poe who is remembered, while Griswold is only remembered because of Poe.  

Perhaps the worst example of Poe’s contrarian nature involved his ill-fated trip to Washington DC to see President of the United States, John Tyler. In 1841, his friend, writer Frederick William Thomas wrote to Poe: 

How would you like to be an officeholder here at $1,500 per year payable monthly by Uncle Sam who, however slack he may be to his general creditors, pays his officials with due punctuality. How would you like it? You stroll to your office a little after nine in the morning leisurely, and you stroll from it a little after two in the afternoon homeward to dinner, and return no more that day.

Thomas helped Poe arrange a meeting with President Tyler’s son Robert, but the poet failed to show. But after a perfectly worded apology letter, the younger Tyler recommended Edgar for the job. After a clerical error in which his name being misspelled “Pogue” instead of Poe, he decided to go directly to the source and visit the President. Unfortunately, when the writer arrived in the nation’s capital, he began to drink. There are several accounts of his insistence on wearing his cloak inside-out in public and making a “fool” of himself due to drink. He appeared for his meeting with the President still under the influence, but Robert Tyler managed to intercept him before the appointment. A second sober visit failed to remedy the first disastrous one, and Robert sent Poe packing. The support for the high-paying position vanished, and he returned to Philadelphia in shame. Edgar knew exactly what happened to his body and mind when he drank liquor of any kind, so why would he imbibe when much-needed financial security lay within his grasp? The only conclusion we can come to is that the writer was in the grip of The Imp of the Perverse

Next up:

Poe’s Women

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